As part of the “rhetorical situation” most students either pick up on or are explicitly taught, “audience” looms large as the writer tries to predict exactly what will move those who hear or read the work. Other pieces enter the picture, too—purpose, occasion, for example—and this triumvirate serves as a kind of cloud into which the writer uploads words.
In classical rhetoric (or, is that Classical Rhetoric), the role of an audience is addressed in the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Plato, Socrates (via Plato of course), and a few “unknown authors.” Although the question of “audience” figures into all these authors’ works, the question of how or even whether one should attend to one’s audience was rather more fractured: For some the audience may be filled with dimwits who hold untrained opinions (doxa), and so the model orator would address them by taking the high road of “knowledge” and truth. In short, he should teach virtue and deliver wisdom (and therefore enlighten those ignorant souls; Socrates, as the mouthpiece of Plato, never did think much of the hoi polloi: see Plato,Gorgias). For others, namely Aristotle, audience was figured with somewhat more nuance; his taxonomy of audiences includes their demographics (their family and fortune; their age; they are assumed to be men) their emotional state, and their character type (see Book 2 of Rhetoric). Aristotle identifies general types of audiences—the passive spectator, the engaged public, and the judge (hence the branches of rhetoric: deliberative, epideictic, and forensic). Yet Aristotle did not actively link invention or style to the characteristics of the audience, although knowledge of the audience does play a role in the construction of some figures. While Plato seems to argue that one makes an audience by lifting them up to the level of the (non-sophist) rhetorician, Plato describes a rhetor whose role is to provide wisdom and knowledge or to persuade the audience to accept an established norm or truth.
In the millennia since, rhetoric has created the “reasonable man” standard, in which one man stands for the whole audience, and audience itself has come to be generalized as “the consumer.”